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Mike Harrington: No hard feelings as Encarnacion makes his return to Toronto

TORONTO -- We saw Edwin Encarnacion return to the Rogers Centre on Monday night, looking very odd in his gray Cleveland Indians jersey. You couldn't help but think back to his last great moment here a little over seven months ago.

Thanks to Buck Showalter's utter braincramp of not using Zach Britton, it was Encarnacion vs. Ubaldo Jimenez in the bottom of the 11th inning of the American League wild card game between the Blue Jays and Baltimore. One mighty swing by Encarnacion sent the ball soaring into the second deck in left, with Encarnacion thrusting his arms in the air to celebrate a three-run home run and a 5-2 victory.

The Blue Jays and their fans had to figure there would be plenty more moments like that but the winter turned ugly for both sides. The Jays offered a four-year, $80-million deal that Encarnacion rejected. So they went out and signed Kendry Morales and Encarnacion's market dried up. He ended up signing with Cleveland for three years and $60 million.

So Encarnacion remains on a first-place team hoping to make another run at the World Series. The injury-battered Blue Jays, meanwhile, started the week already 10 games out of first place in the AL East.

"It took some time a few weeks to understand what happened," Encarnacion said through an interpretor prior to the Tribe's 4-2 loss to the Blue Jays in Monday's series opener. "It was difficult because I was hopeful the situation would have been different. ... But after I took the necessary steps to secure my future with the Indians, it got a lot easier. This is a business. They did what they needed to do and I did my part and I went to where the door was open to me."

When Encarnacion popped out of the dugout for batting practice, he was greeted by chants of "Ed-die, Ed-die" by the early arrivals. He strode over to greet old teammates, hugging Jose Bautista and manager John Gibbons, high-fiving Kevin Pillar. He signed tons of autographs as fans screamed his name.

Edwin Encarnacion signs autographs prior to the game (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News).

The folks here clearly didn't hold the ugly end against Encarnacion. They opened their hearts to him Monday. The team played a video tribute to him prior to the game that ended with a giant "Thank You Edwin" graphic on the colussus of a center-field jumbotron. He raised his hands to applaud the crowd and tapped his heart as the fans roared.

"Eddie did a lot for this town, this franchise. Period,” Gibbons said. “And he’s one of the good guys too, you know?”

Another standing ovation commenced prior to his first at-bat as he exhaled deeply, clearly to control his emotions, and then smoked a first-pitch single off the foot of Jays starter Marcus Stroman. Encarnacion had two singles and a walk in the game, finishing 2 for 3 after striking out against siderarmer Joe Smith as the tying run in the eighth.

"I’m really excited to be back ... I’m really excited to be here," Encarnacion said. "This is a city that opened its door to me and gave me the opportunity to have the career that I’ve had.”

"I would've been surprised if it was not," Indians manager Terry Francona said of the fans' positive response. "I actually would've been disappointed. To do what he did here ... he put up some pretty monstrous numbers. And he's such a good kid. It's nice to see people react like that."

How big a loss was Encarnacion for the Jays? Keep in mind he's the only player in baseball with at least 30 home runs in each of the last five years, and the only one with 30 homers/100 RBIs in four of those five years. He was coming off a career-high season of 42 home runs.

Encarnacion entered the game batting just .217 with five homers and 11 RBIs. He was slugging .377. But it's par for the course. He's a notorious slow starter and it's happening again this year, although he went 4 for 10 over the weekend in Kansas City.

"He's shown signs for sure," said Francona. "Over his career, I know April hasn't been the kindest month to him and that's even playing in a dome. We had some cold weather, which I know he's not real fond of. He's everything we thought he was, quiet but really good, a really good teammate. And we know that he's going to hit. He's about as much of a given as you can find in this game."

Encarnacion entered the game with a career .244 batting averge in April and May. But it jumps to .287 in June, .288 in July and .278 in August. And his slugging percentages in those months range from .515-.550.

"Like I always say, it's not in my plan to start slow like this," Encarnacion said. "I always want to start with 10 or 15 home runs at the beginning of this season. But I'm going to stay positive and keep doing my job."

The eighth-inning at-bat was a big showdown and had to bring an odd sense of deja vu to everyone in the park.

"Any time he steps in the box, something good or something dramatic can happen," Gibbons said. "This particular night in the back of your mind you're thinking, 'People are celebrating him. Maybe this isn't a good time.' "

"It's just kind of weird seeing him in a different uniform," Pillar said. "It was OK watching him on TV. Seeing him in person for the first time was a little bit strange for me. He's been here as long as I've been here. I'm used to seeing him over in that corner of the clubhouse, seeing him come up in those situations and really expecting him to come through ... It was weird to want him to strike out in that situation."

Encarnacion said he didn't have much thought on why the Blue Jays are struggling without him (injuries and Bautista's .174 batting average are huge culprits). But he admitted it was strange coming into the cavernous ballpark a different way than he was used to. He said he's still adjusting to life in Cleveland, and life with the Indians.

"They're a team that comes prepared," he said. "It's a team that does their very best in every single game and I'm here to give my best to them."

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